Chess Variants and Other Phantom Design Space

Mike Elliott is a game designer I met working at Wizards of the Coast. He was among the best designers for Magic and has designed many games himself; trading card games which include Duel Masters and Battle Spirits, board and card games, and even a game on Club Penguin that my kids love – Card Jitsu. His designs are consistently elegant and original, and I hope to see a lot more of them in the future.  I also hope he can find time to contribute more articles like this.

Richard Garfield

Chess was one of the first games I learned when I was young, back in the dark ages before role playing games and MMO’s. I thought the differing movement of the pieces was interesting and simple, although the chess pieces were not as tasty as checkers. I was 4 at the time.

Chess, along with Go, is always brought up when I have discussions with my friends on strategic games. Chess is the classic example of a game with no random elements. If you lose at chess, you can blame first move advantage if you are black, but other than that you have only your pitiful lack of skill to blame for your loss. There is a certain type of personality that gravitates to these types of pure strategic games, and in general they tend to stick to these games and in the older portion of this demographic, they tend to not actively seek new games to play. I know one avid Go player and two avid chess players. In comparison, I know hundreds of avid MMO players and dozens of fans for various board games that have been with them for years. The ship for the simplistic positional strategy game seems to have sailed, and for some very easy to define reasons.

While I was a fan of chess when I was younger, now I find I have no real desire to ever play. Because it is a pure strategic game and all permutations are known, I feel that my avenue to get better is basically to memorize which permutations lead to victory and to study historical game records. This seems like a lot of work to master a game and I always feel like there are other players that will spend more time and effort in this area, so I will generally be behind the curve in this game. Since being behind the curve means you lose a lot, and since you have very few excuses in chess, I tend to avoid the game as losing doesn’t go well with my constantly needy ego.

There are a large number of chess variants around, and most of them do not get a lot of play. I would surmise that very few of them get play from active chess players, since they are concentrating on mastering the standard form and are for the most part content with the standard game. Some variants merely involve extra queens or differing movement of pieces. A recent version features reflective pieces with a laser that you can fire to destroy opposing pieces. Clever and a nice gimmick, but after a small number of games you realize it is still a standard positional strategy game and it goes on your game shelf.

In the early days of video games in 1983, an interesting variant came out called Archon. In Archon, you had a number of fantasy pieces that moved around and fought whenever they landed on the same square as another piece. There was a mild random element and the combat was affected by the color of the square, but in general the stronger piece would defeat the weaker piece. The victory condition was elimination of opposing pieces so to some extent it was a cross between chess and traditional miniatures games. Traditional miniatures games, like Warhammer 40K, resemble chess in that they are strategic and positional, but the dice rolling provides the random element that is generally crucial to replay value in these types of games. Archon at the time was fairly popular, and it shows how far you have to stray from the central chess tree.

There have been a number of core hobby chess variants over the years, ranging from Knightmare Chess to Navia Dratp to Dreamblade, but none of them really gained a rabid following. In general, players seem to understand these games and often rate them highly, but they always seem to take a back seat to other table top games. My favorite variant attempt in the last several years was Creepy Freaks from 2003. While I generally think chess variants are a bad idea, a chess variant with an IP and game targeted at 8-10 boys seems particularly ambitious, or insane, or ambitiously insane. Take your pick.

Probably the most entertaining variant for me uses the traditional pieces but expands out the game and the rules. I am talking about Bughouse, a rapid timed variant where players compete two on two with one player playing white and one black on each side. When a piece is captured, it is placed in the middle on the capturing side and can be placed on the board by the player of that color in any spot. Both pairs use a chess clock usually set to a very low amount of time such as 1 to 3 minutes, so it is a very quick game. It definitely gets your blood flowing as well. My favorite feature of this game is that if my side loses, it was obviously my incompetent partner that caused the loss and not me. This is also one of the reasons for my love of bridge.

The key dilemma in these games stems from the battle between strategic calculation and random chance. If you are a game designer, you should almost always come down on the side of random chance. (If you have any doubt at all, flip a coin and then go the random chance route regardless of the outcome.) While strategic and calculational games have a place, they tend to quickly polarize the audience into experts and people who no longer want to play the game. Since the expert group will always be a fairly small percentage of the audience, you are always looking at a very small subset of the gaming market as the audience for your game. With random chance, while the better players still tend to win more often, the larger audience does not get discouraged and will hang around playing for a longer time, probably even winning the occasional game here and there.

The moral of the story is that while chess variants are fairly easy to create, a large percentage of the gaming community has a secret aversion to chess and all things chess related. The ones that don’t have an aversion to chess are the chess players, and they won’t build any temples in your honor either, since they already have chess and are presumably quite happy with it. There is also just a lot more overall competition with so many games out on the market these days. The idea that someone can create a more interesting chess game that will either capture chess players or the theoretical “vast market” of people who like strategic games but avoid chess is one that often gets floated in discussions with designers, but in my humble opinion (who am I kidding, humble opinion, hah!) the area of chess variants is mostly phantom design space. Of course, now Richard or someone will come out with a killer chess variant that sweeps the nation.

Bring it on.

-Mike Elliott


5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Lawrence,

    Extremely interesting: I’ve noticed with Magic especially that the elements of random play that have been introduced to combat this phenomenon are often those most reviled by players, yet without them the game would suffer. I mean that players *think* they hate things like clash (the mechanic), the random nature of what you open in a draft, shuffling the deck etc but without them magic would become a calculation game and those with the most time would win.

    I think one of the great shames of the game is that with the internet and better coverage in general the game has become more calculable (all cards in a given set known, etc) and so moved more towards rewarding player hours put in over skill, acute tactical play etc. You can be a sharp player but the guy with 100 hoursn of playtesting and the best metagame call (arrived at through said testing) will crush..

  2. Dre,

    Magic is interesting in that the shuffle mechanic is random, but the whole deck building process (with a remotely skilled player) will be anything but random. The best decks in the game are the ones that reduce the random element to as low as possible, with really high consistency.

    Magic doesn’t seem to reward players with randomness so much as it utterly ruins them: mana screw anyone? :P

  3. Mike suggests that chess variants are a phantom design space. I have heard that a lot. Even when a chess variant meets his criteria for the best potential (Warhammer 40K type) it is difficult to get noticed. Even more so if the chess variant is not a computer game. However, I think the problem is more of getting people to know its around.

    I created a chess variant that uses traditional chess with a layer of wargaming added. You can co-occupy squares, which means you can move your queen in front of your king and next turn move your bishop there too. Also you fight for the square like in wargaming: you have a statistic sheet for each piece and when you move into combat you roll dice to see if you hit and how much damage you do. If you don’t score a kill, the continue to fight next turn. To win, you either Checkmate your opponent (can’t move into an allied occupied square when in check) or you go in and bludgeon the king.

    The rest of the rules include Healing (of injured pieces that survived square take-over), Withdrawal (retreating from a combat square to any adjacent square thus allowing a black square bishop to go white square), Queen expulsion (allowing a queen to kick an opponent out of the square) and Carrying (the ability of the rook and the knight to carry/move additional pieces).

    Since you are using traditional 64 square board and chess rules (except the co-occupation and dice attacks), players can attempt traditional styles of opening moves, controlling the center of the board, end runs, etc. And sometimes they don’t work because of the probability. This helps level the field for a beginner. Until you learn what works and what doesn’t (and even I don’t know all those things), it gives you the freedom to just do stupid things that you wouldn’t do under any circumstance in traditional chess to see what would happen.

    But lo, if you think this chess game will get blasé after awhile, think how often you have wargamed or played Magic, etc. Randomness helps.

    This chess variant is called Fantasy Chess. There is a battle rep at It has played well at the Los Angeles Strategicons. The top demographic does seem to be 10-14 year old boys, but anyone I taught liked it or thought their friend/relative would like it.

    Another aspect about Fantasy Chess is that you can (and should) make your own chess pieces out of 15mm or 25mm figures. That allows a collector of figures to display their collection as prize chess pieces. And this is in any genre: Fantasy, Napoleonics, Sci Fi, Horror, etc.

    And a game should be able to expand to keep interest.
    1) Fantasy Chess can be played as Tournament. In traditional chess, you play a game…that’s it. you play a game…that’s it. In a Fantasy Chess Tournament, you can declare all your surviving pieces Veterans and the go into the next game increased in rank. By the 4th game you have rank 0-3 ranked pieces of various sorts. You can keep the ranking hidden if you want and sometimes you want to hold back a high ranking piece if its going to get mauled. This is Continuity gaming that can lead to campaigns.
    2) You can play Fantasy Chess as a 4 player game. Bump two chess sets together and have army of the left and army of the right agains your opponents. You get full use of both boards and the initiative for each turn is rolled so its a new order each time. You actually plan moves (or not) with your ally as you attempt to checkmate both the enemy kings. This is a way of bringing players together.
    3) Campaign Fantasy Chess hasn’t been developed yet, but I can see it taking on any aspect of what is currently out there. A map of a continent zoned by country and your army attempts to take over. You battle and gain rank. Your mortal enemy the orcs are uniting with the goblins to the south and invading your neighbors land. You unite with the elves and do a 4 player battle to determine who wins.

    I don’t have the consideration that chess variants are a white elephant. I think its just getting the right variant played and get enough word of mouth out there to form groups that will play (that would probably be the 8-14 year olds) and have it penetrate the niche market until it becomes popular enough to push into other zones. Yes, the chest purist will howl, but I realize that this type of game is marketed at the wargaming/general gaming public and those who like chess in general. As usual for game designers, I intend to be the one that breaks the ice the Chess Variants are Death. “Of course, now Richard or someone will come out with a killer chess variant that sweeps the nation.”

    - John Paul

  4. Hey, excellent entry! I will bookmark this one! Thanks

  5. I love your articles I’m really into chess these days I used to be but starting to get back into it

Add Your Comments

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>